Stuart Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Company

Citation55 L.Ed. 369,220 U.S. 61,31 S.Ct. 337
Decision Date13 March 1911
Docket NumberNo. 260,260
PartiesSTUART LINDSLEY, Appt., v. NATURAL CARBONIC GAS COMPANY, William S. Jackson, Attorney General of the State of New York, et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

By a bill in equity exhibited in the circuit court, the appellant, as owner and holder of capital stock and bonds of the Natural Carbonic Gas Company, sought a decree enjoining that company from obeying, and the other defendants from enforcing, a statute of the state of New York, approved May 20, 1908, entitled, 'An Act for the Protection of the Natural Mineral Springs of the State, and to Prevent Waste and Impairment of Its Natural Mineral Waters,' and containing, among others, this provision: 'Pumping, or otherwise drawing by artificial appliance, from any well made by boring or drilling into the rock, that class of mineral waters holding in solution natural mineral salts and an excess of carbonic acid gas, or pumping, or by any artificial contrivance whatsoever in any manner producing, an unnatural flow of carbonic acid gas issuing from or contained in any well made by boring or drilling into the rock, for the purpose of ex- tracting, collecting, compressing, liquifying, or vending such gas as a commodity otherwise than in connection with the mineral water and the other mineral ingredients with which it was associated, is hereby declared to be unlawful.' Laws 1908, vol. 2, chap. 429, p. 1221.

In addition to what properly may be passed without special mention, the bill alleges that the gas company owns 21 acres of lands in Saratoga Springs, New York, which contain mineral waters of the class specified in the statute; that these waters are percolating waters, not naturally flowing to or upon the surface, and can be reached and lifted to the surface only by means of pumps or other artificial appliances; that the gas company is engaged in collecting natural carbonic acid gas from these waters, and in compressing and selling the gas as a separate commodity; that this business has come to be both large and lucrative, and as a necessary incident to its successful prosecution the gas company has sunk upon its land wells of great depth, made by boring or drilling into the underlying rock, and has fitted these wells with tubing, seals, and pumps, whereby it lifts the waters and the gas contained therein to the surface; that these pumps do not exercise any force of compulsion upon waters in or under adjoining lands, but lift to the surface only such waters as flow by reason of the laws of nature into the wells, that when the waters are lifted to the surface, the excess of carbonic acid gas therein naturally escapes and is caught and compressed preparatory to its sale, none thereof being wasted, and no process being employed to increase the natural separation of the excess of gas from the waters; and that many other landowners in Saratoga Springs have like wells, which are operated in a like way, with a like purpose.

It also is alleged that the gas company bottles and sells for drinking purposes and for use by invalids and others all of the mineral waters pumped from its wells 'for which there is any market or demand,' but there is no allegation of the extent of this market or demand, and it was conceded in argument that a large proportion of the waters pumped from the company's wells is not used, but is suffered to run to waste.

In terms the bill predicates the right to the relief sought upon the claim that the state statute deprives the appellant and others of property without due process of law, and denies to them the equal protection of the laws, and therefore is violative of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In the circuit court the defendants other than the gas company demurred to the bill, the demurrers were sustained (170 Fed. 1023), and a decree dismissing the bill was entered, whereupon this appeal was prayed and


Messrs. Guthrie B. Plante, Edgar T. Brackett, Robert C. Morris, and Alton B. Parker for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 64-68 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Nash Rockwood, Charles C. Lester, and Edward R. O'Malley for appellees.

Statement by Mr. Justice Van Devanter:

[Argument of Counsel from pages 68-72 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Van Devanter, having made the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court:

The statute against whose enforcement the suit is directed contains several restrictive provisions more or less directly connected with the purpose suggested by its title, but we are concerned with only the one before set forth, because the court of appeals of the state has pronounced the others invalid, and counsel have treated them as thereby eliminated from the statute and from present consideration.

Coming to the provision in question, it is necessary to inquire what construction has been put upon it by the highest court of the state, for that construction must be accepted by the courts of the United States, and be regarded by them as a part of the provision when they are called upon to determine whether it violates any right secured by the Federal Constitution. Weightman v. Clark, 103 U. S. 256, 260, 26 L. ed. 392, 393; Morley v. Lake Shore & M. S. R. Co. 146 U. S. 162, 166, 36 L. ed. 925, 928, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 54; Olsen v. Smith, 195 U. S. 333, 342, 49 L. ed. 224, 229, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 52. The court of appeals of the state had the statute before it in Hathorn v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co. 194 N. Y. 326, 23 L.R.A.(N.S.) 436, 128 Am. St. Rep. 555, 87 N. E. 504, 16 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 989, and again in People v. New York Carbonic Acid Gas Co. 196 N. Y. 421, 90 N. E. 441, and the elaborate opinions then rendered disclose that the court, having regard to the title of the act and to the doctrine of correlative rights in percolating waters which prevails in that state, as recognized in Forbell v. New York, 164 N. Y. 522, 51 L.R.A. 695, 79 Am. St. Rep. 666, 58 N. E. 644, construed this provision, not as prohibiting the specified acts absolutely or unqualifiedly, but only when the mineral waters are drawn from a source of supply not confined to the lands of the actor, but extending into or through the lands of others, and then only when the draft made upon that source of supply is unreasonable or wasteful, considering that there is a coequal right in all the surface owners to draw upon it. In other words, the court, by processes of interpretation having its approval, read into the provision an exception or qualification making it inapplicable where the waters are not drawn from a common source of supply, and also where, if they be drawn from such a source, no injury is done thereby to others having a like right to resort to it.

As so interpreted, the statute presupposes (1) the existence, in porous rock beneath the lands of several pro- prietors, of a supply of mineral waters of the class specified; (2) a right in each proprietor to penetrate the underlying rock or natural reservoir and to draw upon the supply therein; and (3) a practice or tendency on the part of proprietors who exercise this right in the manner and for the purpose specified, that is, by boring or drilling wells into the rock and pumping or artifically drawing the waters for the purpose of collecting and vending the gas as a separate commodity, to make excessive or wasteful drafts upon the common supply, to the injury and impairment of the rights of other proprietors. And what is thus presupposed is treated in several decisions of the courts of the state and in other public papers as having actual existence and as being widely recognized. It is to prevent or avoid the injury and waste suggested that the statute was adopted. It is not the first of its type. One in principle quite like it was considered by this court in Ohio Oil Co. v. Indiana, 177 U. S. 190, 44 L. ed. 729, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 576, 20 Mor. Min. Rep. 466. There oil and gas in a commingled form were contained in a stratum of porous rock underlying the lands of many owners, and because these fluids were inclined to shift about in the common reservoir in obedience to natural laws, one surface owner could not excessively or wastefully exercise his right of tapping the reservoir and drawing from its contents without injuriously affecting the like right of each of the others. The oil and gas were both of value, but as the greater value attached to the oil, some surface owners whose wells tapped the common reservoir and brought to the surface both oil and gas, collected and used only the oil, and suffered the gas to disperse in the air. This and kindred practices resulted in the adoption of a statute declaring them unlawful, and the validity of the statute was called in question. The objections urged against it were much the same as those now pressed upon our attention, but upon full consideration all were overruled. After commenting upon the peculiar attributes of oil and gas which cause them to be excepted from the principles generally applied to minerals having a fixed situs, and also upon the prevailing rule that each surface owner in an oil and gas area has the exclusive right on his own land to seek the oil and gas in the reservoir beneath, but has no fixed or certain ownership of them until he reduces them to actual possession, this court said:

'They [meaning the surface owners] could not be absolutely deprived of this right which belongs to them without a taking of private property. But there is a coequal right in them all to take from a common source of supply the two substances, which, in the nature of things, are united, though separate. It follows, from the essence of their right and from the situation of the things as to which it can be exerted, that the use by one of his power to seek to convert a part of the common fund to actual possession may result in an undue proportion being attributed to one of the possessors of the right, to the detriment of the others,...

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